Question of the Week: Has the Sun Already Set on the Dolphins’ Season?

Jul 29, 2016; Davie, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake (32) during practice drills at Baptist Health Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 29, 2016; Davie, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake (32) during practice drills at Baptist Health Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

The law of averages tells us that a team with an 0-2 start has just a 12% chance of making the playoffs. So, does that mean the sun has already set on the 2016 Miami Dolphins?

If one believes what the mathematicians, some members of the media, and a small but vocal faction of Dolphins fans have to say, the answer to that question would be an unequivocal “Yes”. Fortunately for the rest of us, the players are under no obligation to listen to their critics……and quit. In fact, based on what we have seen thus far, there isn’t even the slightest reason to believe they will.

While the frustration expressed on social media by these “doom and gloom” fans is understandable, given that Miami has not won a playoff game since 2000, their cries of “Same old Dolphins!” and “Another losing season! I guarantee it!” are as over-the-top premature as those of “Pie in the Sky” fans who annually predict a Super Bowl championship before even a single down of football has been played.

Now, that isn’t to say there is no reason for concern. The Dolphins have had their share of problems on both sides of the ball over the first two games. Proof of this is evident in the lists below, which highlight the most glaring issues.

Week One Negatives Against Seattle

  • The Dolphins’ offense got off to a slow start.
  • The running game proved woefully ineffective, gaining just 64 yards on 20 carries.
  • Kenny Stills dropped what would have been a perfect 71-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill that hit him square in the hands while he was running in stride.
  • Tannehill was held to 186 yards through the air and no TDs.
  • The offensive line gave up 5 sacks, including two by Branden Albert.
  • Arian Foster failed to convert a fourth-and-less-than-one deep in Seattle territory.
  • Andrew Franks missed a field goal that was partially blocked due to a mistake by rookie left guard Laremy Tunsil.
  • The Seahawks possessed the ball for 9:04 longer than the Dolphins.
  • This led to the Miami defense being on the field for over 70 plays.
  • As a result, they were too worn out to stop the Seahawks from driving 75 yards on 14 plays for the winning score.
  • DeVante Parker did not play amidst criticism from head coach Adam Gase concerning the receiver’s off-the-field conditioning regiment.
  • Jay Ajayi was not permitted to make the trip following what was reportedly a poor reaction to Foster being named the starting RB.

Week Two Negatives Against New England

  • Another slow start by the offense.
  • The defense was woefully unprepared to deal with the Patriots’ short slants and quick releases, which negated the Dolphins’ pass rush throughout the early drives. This was perhaps the most surprising aspect of the game, given that Belichick has used this strategy for years.
  • The running game was significantly sub-par once again.
  • Arian Foster lasted just three runs before leaving the game with a groin injury. This only highlighted what was a bad decision from the start. While Foster was not a huge financial gamble for Miami, he nevertheless occupies a roster spot that could have gone to a younger, healthier back. While reports out of Miami emphasized that he looked great during preseason, in the modern NFL, practices are a far cry from real game contact. As such, it is becoming painfully clear that Foster is now just a fragile shell of his former self.
  • Ajayi replaced Foster, and his most notable contribution to the highlight reel was an unforced fumble that ended a promising drive.
  • Anthony Steen derailed another series with a bad snap that sailed past Tannehill for a big loss.
  • The usually sure-handed Jarvis Landry fumbled while fighting for additional yardage.
  • Tannehill threw a dying quail of an interception as he was hit while throwing off his back foot.
  • Byron Maxwell was swatted aside like a child by Martellus Bennett on a 37-yard catch-and-run.
  • The defense gave up 161 rushing yards, and worse still, was unable to stop LaGarette Blount from chewing up both yards and the clock when it mattered most.
  • The defense allowed Patriots’ 2nd string QB Jimmy Garoppolo to throw for 234 yards and 3 TDs for a 130.8 passer rating in less than two quarters.
  • The defense also allowed Patriots’ 3rd string QB Jacoby Brissett to rack up a 100.2 passer rating while managing the game.
  • The defense was once again on the field for over 70 plays.
  • The Patriots outdistanced the Dolphins by a staggering 13:32 in time of possession.

Needless to say, with an 0-2 record and a laundry list of issues to resolve, there is no denying the Dolphins are not yet the team their fan base hoped for and, as a result, they will have their hands full turning things around. Regardless, there are plenty of reasons to believe the team can do just that. To that point, what follows is an equally eye-catching list of positives from the first two games that should give any reasonable fan hope that Miami can still make a run this season.

Week One Positives Against Seattle

  • The Dolphins made the longest trip possible in the NFL, other than London, played in front of the loudest home crowd in the world, and came within 31 seconds of beating a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
  • Displaying impressive poise under pressure, Ryan Tannehill drove the offense 86 yards on 7 plays for a go-ahead score with just over four minutes remaining in the game.
  • The relentless assault of Miami’s front four yielded 3 sacks and hobbled Russell Wilson.
  • Mario Williams, who had one of those three sacks, spent most of the afternoon keeping Wilson on the run, never allowing him to get into rhythm or to scramble for significant yards.
  • Ndamukong Suh was dominant on the inside, racking up a sack, three QB hits, two solo tackles and a batted pass.
  • Jakeem Grant tallied 67 yards on two kickoff returns, including a 45-yarder he nearly broke for a TD.
  • Matt Darr put on a punting exhibition, averaging 46.7 yards per attempt while pinning the Seahawks back inside their 20 on three occasions.
  • Isa Abdul-Quddus picked off a Russell Wilson pass.
  • Kiko Alonso showed his big play potential by recovering a fumble and registering double-digit tackles.
  • The Dolphins committed no turnovers in this game.
  • Arian Foster had a 50-yard catch-and-run on a well designed play out of the backfield.
  • The defense held the Seahawks to just 112 yards on 32 rushing attempts.
  • The Dolphins allowed only two passes for over 20 yards.

Week Two Positives Against New England

  • Kiko Alonso showed his speed and big-play potential yet again by knocking quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo out of the game, giving the Dolphins the boost they needed to mount a comeback.
  • Alonso also recovered a fumble and tallied double digit tackles for the 2nd week in a row.
  • The Dolphins’ defense allowed only two passes over 20 yards.
  • Tannehill was 22 of 27 for 273 yards and two touchdowns in the second half while beautifully orchestrating the “No huddle” offense. More impressive still, despite knowing he was going to be throwing on almost every down due to the score, the Patriots’ defense couldn’t slow him down.
  • Despite being at less than 100%, DeVante Parker had 8 catches for 106 yards. More importantly, he stretched the defense and drew double coverage, opening up the field for his fellow receivers and tight ends.
  • Jarvis Landry had 10 receptions for 137 yards.
  • Kenny Stills returned to form, catching a 24-yard touchdown strike from Tannehill that, again, hit him in stride.
  • Jordan Cameron finally got in sync with Tannehill, bringing down 5 receptions for 49 yards and a TD.
  • The Dolphins offensive line did not permit a single sack.
  • Rookie Kenyan Drake hinted that he might be the answer at running back with 4 touches for 18 yards and a touchdown.
  • Tannehill had 6 carries for 35 yards, including a gutsy 17-yard run on Miami’s last drive, where he lowered his shoulder and took on Patriots’ defenders in order to pick up much-needed additional yards.
  • Matt Darr averaged an impressive 49.7 yards per punt.
  • The Dolphins nearly pulled off a major comeback against another legitimate Super Bowl contender on the road.

What these contradictory lists tell us is that, thus far, the Dolphins have been remarkably inconsistent, exactly what one should expect from a young team learning a new system under a rookie head coach and a first-year defensive coordinator. Like a newborn colt rising on wobbly legs for the very first time, there have been more than a few awkward moments, along with instances of absolute grace. In fact, on more than one occasion, both have occurred simultaneously. Take, for example, Tannehill’s laser-accurate bomb to Kenny Stills against the Legion of Boom. The throw was a thing of beauty, while the drop was about as ugly a blunder as one will see in the NFL.

So, given the inconsistencies, why should anyone believe the Dolphins can clean up their game? Well, for starters, Gase seems well on his way to accomplishing his primary goal. After two games, Ryan Tannehill is ranked as the #10 QB in the NFL by Pro Football Focus (PFF), and his run grade is the second highest at that position behind only Aaron Rodgers. The reason this is important is because, unlike the traditional quarterback rating system, PFF doesn’t penalize Tannehill for dropped passes, or the mistakes of other players, therefore, it is a more accurate barometer of his actual play.

Beyond the numbers, the former Texas A&M standout has shown extraordinary toughness and the kind of fighting spirit many thought he lacked. Furthermore, he has picked up the “No Huddle” offense in record time, done a terrific job of audibling at the line, and shown real guts and leadership.

There is, of course, a slice of the Miami fan base that vehemently disagrees with this assertion, and argue that Tannehill will never develop into a top ten QB. They proclaim that the fifth-year quarterback hasn’t shown any improvement at all. A few even insist that he has regressed.

Adam Gase has heard these so-called “Tannehill Haters”, as they have been dubbed by mainstream fans, and according to the Miami Herald’s Adam Beasley, rejects their point of view.

“I don’t know how much more he can really step up considering that he’s doing everything right now that we need him to do,” insisted the rookie head coach while speaking to the media. “It’s just that we need every guy to pull their weight.”

“I don’t know how much more he can really step up considering that he’s doing everything right now that we need him to do.”

Gase is, of course, correct, at least in the sense that Tannehill can’t do it all alone. So, with that in mind, what follows are five basic areas where the Dolphins need to improve.

  1. The Running Game – Miami needs to go to more of the hybrid running-back-by-committee system alluded to during the preseason and use a different primary rusher on every drive. This will allow the cream to rise to the top, and perhaps, over time, a single dominant back will emerge. For now, Arian Foster isn’t getting the job done and, as I and others predicted, he can’t stay healthy. Jay Ajayi has trouble holding on to the ball. The team kept five running backs for a reason. So use them and let the best man win out. The smart money is on Kenyan Drake.
  2. Creating and Converting Third-and-Short Situations – The Dolphins should adopt the strategy New England used so effectively against them this past weekend. By throwing on first down, the Patriots repeatedly left themselves with easy-to-convert second and third down situations for their short-yardage running game. A more varied running attack, as mentioned previously, will help this cause as well.
  3. Get Off to a Faster Start – If there is one criticism of Ryan Tannehill that is difficult to refute, even now, it is the fact that he is a notoriously slow starter. As such, Gase needs to set an uptempo tone on the first drive and open up the offense. As an offensive coordinator in Denver and Chicago he used the pass to set up the run. He needs to go back to that formula in Miami because the Dolphins are far better through the air than they are on the ground.
  4. Time of Possession – In 120 minutes of football thus far this season the Dolphins have had the ball a mere 48:42. Their opponents, in turn, have held the ball for a whopping 71:18. The only way the “No Huddle” offense will ever tire defenses is if it can keep them on the field for extended stretches of times.
  5. Stop the Run – For all the criticism of Miami’s secondary coming into this season, the Dolphins have yet to be burned deep. In fact, the longest pass play the team has given up was the 37-yarder to Martellus Bennett, which was a short pass followed by a long run. Where the Dolphins have faltered, particularly in the New England game, was against the run.

The keys to achieving success in these five areas are consistency and efficiency. However, it is important to note that the need for a more stable attack doesn’t just apply to the players. The Dolphins’ coaching staff needs to raise the level of their play calling, especially early in games, and make quicker adjustments on the defensive side of the ball. More important still, they must devise schemes to better mask the team’s weaknesses.

If the Miami Dolphins can steadily eliminate the inconsistencies, they should be able to contend against anyone. If you doubt that, simply consider what this team would look like if it could muster the defensive effort it put forth in the first half of the Seattle game, and the offensive display they flashed during the second half of the New England contest….into a full 60 minutes.

With that in mind, let us take a realistic look at their remaining schedule and analyze the level of competition on a scale of 1 to 5, with a 1 being a bottom dweller and a 5 a legitimate Super Bowl Contender.

  Opponent                                            Rating          Proj. Record

CLE @ MIA                        11-2 
MIA @ CIN                        41-3
TEN @ MIA                        32-3
PIT @ MIA                        52-4
BUF @ MIA                        23-4
NYJ @ MIA                        43-5
MIA @ SD                        34-5
MIA @ LA                        25-5
SF @ MIA                        26-5
MIA @ BAL                        37-5
ARI @ MIA                        57-6
MIA @ NYJ                        48-6
MIA @ BUF                        29-6
NE @ MIA                        510-6

If the Dolphins start picking up speed after the bye, and winning the games they should win, the season could come down to splitting their games with the Jets, and a week 17 showdown with the Patriots, who, despite their early season dominance, haven’t won in south Florida since Tannehill’s rookie season. If that scenario sounds like a stretch, consider that the Dolphins beat both the Bengals and Steelers under Joe Philbin, so the idea of a split with the Jets under Gase is far from impossible. Beyond that, injuries, weather and odd bounces of the ball could play in Miami’s favor.

Regardless of what may or may not come to pass, for the moment, all we can do is take stock of the team’s current situation, and the truth is, it isn’t as dire as some fear. After all, the Dolphins weren’t expected to beat either Seattle or New England, two legitimate top echelon teams, on the road, so there is no need to hit the panic button as of yet. That said, should they lose to the lowly Browns at home, there will be little choice but to accept 2016 as a rebuilding year.

Then again, should Miami beat Cleveland, and after that, go on to upset the Bengals, making a 10-6 record all the more possible, even the team’s most jaded supporters will have to take notice. For if they don’t, then, at the very least, they should reexamine why they call themselves Dolphins’ fans at all.